School & District Management Opinion

Competency-Based Learning: 10 Elements, 10 Tools, & 10 Policies

By Tom Vander Ark — October 26, 2012 6 min read
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A policymaker at the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) Virtual School Symposium (VSS) said,
“We want to advance competency-based learning, what kind of bill should we introduce?” Let’s start by looking at the 10 design elements of a
competency-based system (an update of a May blog):

1. Intellectual mission
that focuses resources and behaviors on productive habits of mind and preparation for participation in college, careers, and civic life (i.e., this is
not a watered-down alternative) and standards that express in some detail what students should know and be able to do.

2. Multiple assessments
aligned with standards-based learning experiences (i.e., units of instruction, projects, learning games), some teacher scored and some computer scored,
some adaptive and some authentic.

3. Competency-tracking
and progress reporting in place of grading on a curve and class rank.

4. Grouping
and scheduling systems--when, why and how groups are used when learning not age cohorts is the dominant organizing principle.

5. Reporting
to the outside world that still thinks in courses, credits, and grades.

6. Content
that supports self-directed and customized learning.

7. Tools
that facilitate standards-based challenges, collaboration, and scheduling.

8. Teacher support,
preparation and development for a dynamic team-based environment where time-to-mastery is a variable.

9. Evaluation systems
that helps to determine growth in student learning and how experiences and adults are contributing.

10. Community connections
and supports for student success.

The following are 10 edtech advances that would make it easier for teachers to manage competency-based learning environments:

1. Super grade book that captures teacher and content-embedded assessment observations--this should be “automagically” simple to use.

2. Learner profiles that capture keystroke paradata to build motivational profiles.

3. Student information systems that are as robust as the best customer relationship management (CRM) system that helps a broad team make
informed contributions.

4. Smart social systems that surface experiences/content that appear to be successful (i.e., a curriculum app similar to Yelp).

5. Smart recommendation engines that queue learning experiences likely to produce persistence and performance (i.e., an iTunes Genius for

6. Micro-standards for tagging content and assessment so that we can build pretty-good comparability of data sets for kids with different
learning experiences.

7. Achievement recognition systems--badges and other data visualization and recognition systems--that recognize achievement, facilitate
parent-teacher-student conversations, and manage matriculation.

8. Planning tools that help students and advisors make smart choices about the next few weeks/months of learning.

9. College and career awareness tools and decision support systems that drive smart decisions about the next year or two.

10. Portfolio tools that store ‘personal-best’ artifacts.

I started with the design elements and the tools because I think they more important than policy changes. With waivers, there is a lot of potential
flexibility available to many schools. It’s often old practices and crummy tools holding us back not policy barriers. The good news is that we’re starting
see progress in and out of school. With knowledge maps, playlists, and badges Sal

Khan’s big contribution will be competency-based learning


Competency-based state policy.
While competency-based learning is a practice issue first and a policy issue second, there’s a lot policymakers can do to accelerate the shift to
student-centered learning. Digital Learning Now! (DLN) is a forward leaning
state policy framework and a good place to start. With help from Susan Patrick and Chris Sturgis, the brain trust behind Competency Works, the following is a list of 10 state policies aligned with DLN and adding some detail and
identifying options.

1. Standards: Real college and career ready standards (CCSS or equal) emphasizing deeper learning (academic, lifelong learning, and career ready knowledge
and skills), linked to college entrance exams and benchmarked by NAEP.

2. On-demand assessments: Secondary end-of-course exams should be available on demand or multiple scheduled times during the year. States
could also provide/require periodic use of an adaptive assessment as a quarterly addition to (and check on) local assessment systems.

3. Performance assessments: State policy makers may want to add or encourage periodic performance demonstrations to promote the
integration and application of knowledge and discourage matriculation management from becoming a sequence of multiple-choice gateways. For example, I’d
like to see every secondary student participate in a science fair at least every other year including teacher-scored writing and presentation based on
rigorous standards-based rubrics.

4. Accountability: As matriculation management systems mature, end-of-year K-8 exams can become lightweight verifications of school
quality (potentially utilizing NAEP-like sampling strategies). States should encourage districts/networks to propose data-rich competency-tracking systems
and could reward their efforts with lighter weight testing requirements. As long as districts/networks can report growth and proficiency metrics with
accuracy and comparability it shouldn’t matter what collection of assessments is used.

5. Graduation requirements: New Hampshire has a competency-based diploma but kept the structure of credits. It would be possible to
establish competency-based graduation requirements especially with Common Core standards. However, as choice-to-the-course becomes more widespread, it is
likely that end-of-course exams and credits will be part of most grad requirements.

6. Eliminating seat-time requirements: States should redefine grade levels, and Carnegie units as units of competency rather than periods
of time. However, let’s admit that the issue of “time” is everywhere--hours per day, days per year, hours per employee, etc. Next Classrooms (inventors of
School of One) borrowed ‘par’ value from golf to estimate the number of exposures the average student requires to learn a concept. Similarly, schools (and
state accountability systems) will focus on the amount of student learning per year (i.e., one student gained the equivalent of 1.2 years while another
gained 0.8).

7. Growth data: Growth data must be gathered on individual student growth trajectories as well as school wide. States influence growth
data collection as a result of school accountability (including NCLB waivers), teacher evaluation systems, and shared information systems.

8. Data systems: As noted in the recently released DLN Smart Series Data Backpack paper, states should set standards for and facilitate
sharing of comprehensive grade book worth of data as students move grade-to-grade and school-to-school. Teachers in states participating in the Shared
Learning Collaborative should soon have the ability to access a backpack full of data on new students.

9. Funding: Perhaps most technically challenging is the DLN recommendation for weighted, portable, and performance-based funding. When
time becomes a variable, the equation becomes a bit more complicated. Weighted funding (i.e., more money for students with more risk factors) would fund
additional time. Portable funding expands student options. Making a portion of funding performance-based creates incentives for achievement and completion.

10. Market signaling: States can accelerate development of new tools and platforms by signaling the shift to competency-based learning
(e.g., new policies in Oregon, New Hampshire, and Maine and with grant programs RTTD and NGLC) and by aggregating demand.

This complicated set of policy changes should be enacted in phases starting with investments in data systems and data definitions, making instructional
assessments available and with support for new school development (see " 10 Reasons Every District Should Open a Flex School
"). States should look for ways to support students, teachers and schools ready to move into the competency-based future.

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.